If Louis Scarcella was considered one of New York’s finest, then the word fine leaves much to be desired.
By all accounts, the former NYPD detective is a bad man who helped put innocent people behind bars for decades, used phony witnesses to get the job done, and even beating some suspects into false confessions. And he is costing the city millions of dollars. You know you’re bad when you have a reputation among prisoners for being crooked or when the district attorney begs the judge to throw out the convictions of people you arrested.
Scarcella, 62, was on the force for nearly three decades, stationed in Brooklyn. And he had an impressive record of nabbing killers, doing whatever it took to get suspects to talk. As Sean Flynn reported in GQ magazine, the heavily decorated Scarcella received Chief of Detectives’ Award for Outstanding Police Investigation for the cases he purportedly solved.
Well-respected and even legendary, this hotshot detective was believable. Scarcella had investigated 241 murders — many of them high-profile and in the media — and even served as an expert, appearing on the Dr. Phil show, in 2007 to discuss false confessions from the police perspective. As was reported in The Village Voice, Scarcella told Dr. Phil that he never had a confession that did not corroborate and turned out to be false. “I will do whatever I have to do within the law to get a confession or to get someone to cooperate with me.”
“Are there rules when it comes to homicide? No. No, there are none,” he added.
Yet, Detective Scarcella was found out to be a sham only last year, 13 years after he retired.
Last year, one of Scarcella’s arrestees was released from prison. In 1991, David Ranta was convicted of the 1990 shooting death of Rabbi Chaskel Werzberger, a prominent rabbi in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. This despite the fact there was no physical evidence linking Ranta to the murder. And yet, there were two witnesses who pointed the finger at Ranta, and there was a confession, all of which Ranta, who proclaimed his innocence, denied. And with good reason.
In 2014, Brooklyn prosecutors took the extreme step of asking a judge to release Mr. Ranta after spending 20 years behind bars. He had no business being in prison, and the city paid Ranta $6.4 million. He didn’t even have time to take out his pen to sue the city. He suffered from a heart attack the day after his release.
Although Ranta is white, Scarcella’s victims typically were of color and poor.
Last year, the Kings County District Attorney’s office announced they would investigate fifty-seven cases in which an arrest by Detective Scarcella led to a conviction.
Just this week, it was announced that the City of New York will pay $17 million to three half-brothers — Alvena Jennette, Robert Hill and the estate of Darryl Austin. The men spent a combined 60 years behind bars for murders in the 1980s they did not commit, thanks to Scarcella’s handiwork. Jennette was paroled in 2007 after serving nearly two decades in prison, while Hill was released last year when charges against him were dismissed after spending 27 years in prison. Meanwhile, Austin had died in prison in 2000 after serving 13 years. Of the $17 million, $7.15 million was awarded to Hill, $6 million to Jennette and $3.85 million to Austin’s estate.
So far, Scarcella has cost the city of New York $24 million in settlements. Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, said the city is settling such cases in an effort to avoid lengthy, drawn out litigation. Similarly, the city plans to settle the $75 million Eric Garner case.
Last Friday, a Brooklyn court vacated the 1991 murder conviction of Derrick Hamilton, who said Scarcella had pressured a witness to name him as the killer. As was reported in The New York Times, Hamilton had learned many convictions involving Detective Scarcella often used the same witnesses and resulted in false or coerced confessions. Hamilton — who was released after prosecutors admitted the key witness in the case, the victim’s girlfriend, lied — maintained his innocence for 21 years.
It is not so far-fetched to believe that other cases involving Scarcella will come to the fore. After all, as GQ noted, one “crackhead” prostitute was a key witness, and typically the only witness, in six Scarcella cases. In addition to coercing confessions, the detective has also been accused of coaching witnesses and trading drugs for testimony on numerous occasions.
Sundhe Moses, who has been incarcerated upstate for 18 years for the killing of a 4-year-old girl in Brownsville, Brooklyn, claims the discredited detective beat him until he confessed. “Scarcella is a really dirty cop,” Moses, 37, told the Daily News. “He beat me until I signed that confession … I am angry. My life is gone. This confession is why I am in prison.”
Meanwhile, Rosean Hargrave, 40, hopes to be exonerated amid claims Scarcella framed him.
Scarcella conjures up images of Jon Burge, a former Chicago cop who tortured at least 120 black men over a period of over 20 years between 1972 and 1991. Burge served prison time and was able to keep his pension, while Scarcella remains a free man.
Police officers such as Louis Scarcella give good cops a bad name, this much is certain, but he is merely the tip of the iceberg. Remember that such individuals are allowed to operate in the criminal justice system because they are part of a larger web of corruption. The Detective Scarcellas of the world are unmonitored, given free reign to commit their wrongdoing, and are even awarded medals for it.
Moreover, Scarcella never convicted or sentenced innocent people; he merely arrested them. And he was on the force at a time of high crime, the crack epidemic, when public officials wanted to show they were taking bold steps to combat crime, even if they were secretly framing innocent people. Dirty cops, corrupt prosecutors and unscrupulous judges join forces with ineffective defense lawyers and gullible juries to create this problem.
Meanwhile, former Kings County D.A. Charles Hynes, who was head prosecutor when Scarcella was a Brooklyn cop, faces criminal charges in light of a report he may have paid his media consultant for political work with $200,000 seized from criminals.
So if Louis Scarcella ever goes down, he’d better take others down with him.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove.